The United Arab Emirates came out of OPEC heavyweight Saudi Arabia's shadow this week by demanding better adherence with oil supply cuts, effectively delaying the latest strategy decision by OPEC and its allies by a few days, sources told Reuters.
The unusual move highlights the UAE's growing role within OPEC as it seeks to boost production in the years ahead to gain market share.
It also underscores Abu Dhabi's growing political independence from Riyadh, which became obvious this year when the UAE became the first country in the Gulf to normalise relations with Israel.
OPEC+ opens talks on whether to extend oil cuts or gradually hike output
OPEC and allies led by Russia – known as OPEC+ – had been widely expected by the market to roll over existing production cuts of 7.7 million barrels per day (bpd) into January-March 2021 to tackle weak demand amid a resurgent COVID-19 pandemic.
OPEC+ sources had earlier told Reuters that Saudi Arabia was the main advocate of such a move.
The UAE said this week that even though it could support a rollover, it would struggle to continue with the same deep output reductions into 2021. It also said that all overproducing countries should comply with their cuts and compensate for previous excess output, three sources told Reuters.
The issue was raised by the UAE during informal talks on Sunday and again during an OPEC meeting on Monday, according to the sources.
That could become a sticking point because Iraq insists it cannot cut output further due to budget problems, while Russia made it clear it did not see the need to compensate.
"They knew well in advance that the current Russian compliance level is stipulated by winter season and harsh weather," a Russian source said.
Russia, which under the deal has to cut output by a record 2 million bpd, has cumulative overproduction since May of 530,000 bpd, meaning it would need to cut output by that amount for one month to catch up with its targets.
Iraq's cumulative overproduction is 610,000 bpd.
At Monday's OPEC meeting, Saudi Arabia was pushing fellow members to formally agree a rollover of supply cuts for three months before heading into an OPEC+ meeting on Tuesday.
The UAE and Iraq said they would back the consensus among the group, but they wanted to wait until the OPEC+ meeting on Tuesday before taking formal decisions.
With things looking less and less certain, Saudi Arabia asked Algeria, which presides in OPEC this year, to formally request a delay in the OPEC+ meeting until Thursday to allow more time for consultations, two OPEC sources said.
"The Saudis were really disappointed with the UAE," said one industry source briefed by the Saudis.
Out of frustration, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman offered to step down as a co-chair of OPEC+'s joint ministerial monitoring committee (JMMC), which meets monthly and monitors key developments, OPEC+ sources said.
"The Saudi minister was very upset but said he will go with the consensus. The co-chair post was then offered to the UAE but they said no thanks," said one of the OPEC+ sources.
OPEC+ has to strike a delicate balance between pushing up prices enough to help their budgets, but not so much that rival U.S. output surges. U.S. shale production tends to climb as prices rise above $50 a barrel.
Adding to the challenge within OPEC+, Moscow's finances can tolerate lower oil prices than Riyadh's.
Oil prices were flat on Tuesday near $48 per barrel. Deutsche Bank said in a note this week they could fall as much as 10% if OPEC+ failed to roll over cuts. "Eventually, I think OPEC and non-OPEC will agree (on Thursday)," an OPEC delegate said.